FINDING COMMON GROUND
By Tim Downs
a Book Review by John Ed Robertson
"Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true." (John 4:35-37 NIV)
Have you ever read a book that you wished you had written? Finding Common Ground is a book like that for me. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it would be to say that I wish I could express my deep beliefs as articulately as Tim Downs.
The thrust of the book has to do with the need for sowing at this time and the contrast between sowing and harvesting. Downs two stated purposes are:
He summarizes the differences between sowing and harvesting as follows:
|The harvester focuses on:||While the sower focuses on:|
|The end result||
Preparing the way
|Points of disagreement||
The authors basic thesis is that the Body of Christ is coming off an unusual time of harvesting in America in the 60s and 70s, and this harvest has colored our thinking about evangelism. Many Christians believe that harvesting is the only legitimate form of evangelism, and that sowing is for "wimps", at best. He refers often to Jesus words in John 4:35-37 to establish the legitimacy of sowing. He writes:
"Many of our modern church and evangelistic movements were founded during a time when the American fields were abundantly white for harvest Over the last forty years, many para-church organizations and churches have struggled with a thinning harvest in America."
Although I would say that the "struggle with a thinning harvest" has been primarily over the last twenty years (the abundant harvest to which he refers was primarily in the 60s and 70s), I would certainly agree that the harvest is much thinner today. The basic thesis of the book is that this abundant harvest of the 60s and 70s was made possible by the sowing of previous generations, and that it is now our responsibility to sow to prepare a harvest in future generations.
This book includes a good analysis of contemporary American culture to give the reasons why sowing is much more necessary today than in earlier decades. For example, he observes that pluralism and tolerance have become the supreme virtues for many Americans. He defines pluralism as "the belief that no single explanation or view of reality can account for all the phenomena of life". He notes that the definition of tolerance has shifted from "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with ones own" to "positive" tolerance: "the positive and cordial effort to understand anothers beliefs, practices and habits and to accept them as equally valid approaches to life". In other words, tolerance no longer means tolerating other points of view; we are now expected to affirm them as equally valid. He quotes a placard he saw on a college campus: "It isnt wrong to think youre right, but it isnt right to think others are wrong."
He correctly observes: "The new tolerance has created a tremendous ethical and emotional tension for Christians". We have long enjoyed a "most favored religion" status in America, but those days are over, and many Christians are angry about it. As a result, Christians tend to be much more focused on justice than on love. He writes: "The tension between love and justice is exhausting to maintain. It requires wisdom, sensitivity, self-restraint and faith in the sovereignty of God." Because it is exhausting to maintain this tension, many Christians opt for one extreme or the other, and the majority opts for the extreme of justice. This leads us to focus on proclamation in evangelism, and if people dont respond, it is not our problem.
The emphasis on this being the end times also contributes to this mentality and often leads us to adopt a "scorched earth policy" according to Downs. He writes:
"What Christians most need to understand is that, in our confidence that these are the last days, we are betting the farm and to put it bluntly, it is a gamble we cant afford We should live in the constant hope of Christs imminent return, but plan and work as though He wont come back for a long, long time."
He recommends that we recognize the distinction between a grain harvest (where we sweep through the field and scoop up everything in order to winnow out the grain) and a fruit harvest, where we carefully pick the fruit and leave the vines or trees intact for future years.
Downs includes an excellent discussion of communication as both science (i.e. the content of what we communicate) and art (the style, or how we communicate it). He maintains that most theological education concentrates heavily on the science of communication at the expense of the art of communication. In the modern era this was very important, but as American culture has become more post-modern, we find ourselves once again in the position of having excellent answers to questions that people are no longer asking. He quotes Phillip Yancey in Open Windows:
"When Christians attempt to communicate with non-Christians, we must first think through their assumptions and imagine how they will likely receive the message we are conveying."
He concedes that science is good up to a point, but it can make the most fascinating, life-transforming communication in the world boring. He concludes:
"It is no exaggeration to say that evangelical Christians have experienced a cultural renaissance in our science. Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding renaissance in our art. We have more to say to our culture than ever before, and less ability to say it in a persuasive and compelling way."
There are some excellent thoughts on indirect communication, which "bypasses the listeners conscious defenses". It is really an attack against our "supply lines", our underlying beliefs or attitudes that are critical to the support of our primary beliefs. He notes the obvious effectiveness of indirect communication when used by the secular media. Seldom, if ever, does Hollywood come out and say that that pre-marital sex is normal and healthy, for example, but it is repeatedly portrayed that way. This certainly gets the message across. "The greatest danger to those who would follow Jesus is not overt persecution by society, but subtle seduction of its values."
He deplores the fact that Christians seem so limited to direct communication when we are all so impacted by indirect communication. He writes:
"For the first time in many years, evangelicals have their opponents evenly matched, or even outgunned, on the intellectual, scientific level, (but) the use of art to persuade appears to Christians as a manipulative, dishonorable way to fight, so we continue to fight only our way with science, power, or withdrawal. Our indirect communication lacks power, Yancey says, because it isnt truly indirect. In our desire to make the message clear, we sometimes violate the art we are attempting to use, and we end up simply writing propaganda."
Downs believes that we must lose our fear of art and artists and learn the strategy of indirect communication, and grow in subtlety and patience. Even if Christians are unconvinced of the value and power of art, the world will continue to use it. Furthermore, the world will continue to set the standard for excellence in art.
He also includes an excellent chapter on insider evangelism. He cites several Biblical examples of insiders who worked their way up to key positions of influence, such as Nehemiah, Joseph, and Esther. Many Christians are unconvinced of the value of sowing and suspicious of any calling to be an insider, but those who are outsiders often depend completely on insiders for ministry to take place. Sowing is an inside job, and insider status grants other opportunities aside from direct evangelism that are also of great value.
On the other hand, insiders often need help from outsiders to take advantage of those opportunities. Insiders have access, but limited availability. Outsiders have availability, but limited access. What is needed is a healthy balance of both.
What is also needed for effective insider sowing is a healthy Biblical attitude toward work. The workplace may be a difficult place to harvest, but it is a great place to sow. This requires, however, that we see our "secular" work as being as spiritual as overt evangelism. Downs writes: "Before the sower can introduce his co-workers to God, he must introduce God into his work."
Another requirement for sowing is a healthy balance of innocence and shrewdness, as advocated by Jesus in Matthew 10:16. If we only want to harvest, we dont need as much tact, diplomacy and shrewdness. If we only want to sow, we dont need as much courage. To be effective in both requires both courage and tact, both shrewdness and innocence.
The second half of the book is devoted to strategies for sowing, such as cultivating the soil, planting the seed, and nurturing the seedlings. For example, he lists six "soil deficiencies" in contemporary American culture that must be taken into consideration for effective sowing, including:
He suggests three effective tools for planting, including:
One thing that is very helpful about Downs approach (at least for an engineer!) is that he groups his ideas in lists. Some of these lists have been included above, and others are included in the appendix. He concludes with a helpful summary of the book with the following points:
The effect of these trends can be summarized in four simple points:
Downs concludes that sowing is not some trendy new approach to evangelism; it is an ancient Biblical approach. It is not an option, and a movement of sowers is needed to commit their lives to the rebuilding of American culture. To strike the balance between sowing and harvesting, he writes:
"Is it really necessary to build a relationship with everyone before you can say anything about the Gospel? No, but the concept of sowing recognizes that there are different kinds of fruit and that fields ripen at an uneven rate. Some personalities are more individualistic and are much less concerned about community. But others care very much, and a developing relationship with that kind of person can make all the difference. The sower must determine the type of fruit before he decides the method of harvest. One thing he knows for certain: one technique does not fit all."
|The harvester focuses on:||While the sower focuses on:|
|The end result||Preparing the way|
|Immediate results||Gradual change|
|Individual effort||Team impact|
|Points of disagreement||Common ground|
C Effective tools for planting, including:
D. Requirements for good materials:
E. Recommendations for Cultivating the American Soil
7. We must be willing to accept unmeasurable results.